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In the News: Endangered Mexican Gray Wolves Get Room to Roam

Cronkite News / Tucson Sentinel - Feb. 6, 2015

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RESERVE, New Mexico – “We’ve got a wolf coming in!” Susan Dicks yelled.

A veterinarian and biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Dicks was in an open field about 30 minutes outside of Reserve, a village of 300 in western New Mexico. Along side her were other agency veterinarians as well as volunteers and interns.

Everyone stopped what they were doing and scrambles to get ready. A mat was laid out in a truck bed, syringes were pulled from supply bags and a data recorder was assigned.

They all turned at the distant sound of a helicopter. It landed and out came a veterinarian holding a limp Mexican gray wolf.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was conducting its annual Mexican wolf count.

John Oakleaf, incident commander for the Mexican Wolf Project, said everything runs in stages.

As a spotter plane found the location of a wolf pack, the helicopter flew under the plane to count the number of wolves in a pack. A select few had radio collars on them.

“Those are the animals they target from the helicopter,” Oakleaf said.

Once a wolf was targeted, the darter took over, tranquilizing the animal with a drug that knocked it out for around two hours.

The wolf was muzzled and placed on the open truck bed. Then veterinarians moved in to begin processing it.

“I tend to get very focused on the animal. What is the body temperature of the animal? What is the status of the animal?” Dicks said.

The wolf was weighed, vaccinations were given and an intern took measurements. Its teeth were checked, and its blood was drawn for testing. The wolf was then placed in a kennel before it fully regained consciousness.

Employees of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service then drove it up the mountain and released it back into the wild to find its pack.

“Wolves are wonderful at finding other wolves. Through howling, scent, they’ll put down scat— wolves travel long distances and end up with other wolves somehow,” Oakleaf said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has conducted counts on Mexican gray wolves since 1998, as part of an effort to reintroduce the species to Arizona and New Mexico.

“We started with only seven wolves,” said Sherry Barrett, Mexican wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “From those seven wolves we built a captive breeding population that now hovers between 215 and 300 animals.”

Approximately 80 wolves run free in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, which spans from Arizona to New Mexico.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just announced a revised rule, set to take effect Feb. 17, that expands the area in which the wolves can freely roam.

“We did this to allow the population to grow. Our old area is not large enough for the population to grow without increasing density in those areas. Even with an increase in density, it wouldn’t grow much,” Barrett said.

The Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area currently includes the Apache and Gila national forests. Under the new rules, wolves can occupy any one of three zones.

Wolves may be initially released and naturally disperse into Zone One: the Apache, Gila and Sitgreaves national forests; the Payson, Pleasant Valley and Tonto Basin Ranger Districts of the Tonto National Forest; and the Magdalena Ranger District of the Cibola National Forest.

Zone Two has been designated as the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area. Only pups younger than five months old will be initially released in this area, but wolves can be relocated here later.

Zone Three takes up the entire area south of Flagstaff and Albuquerque in Arizona and New Mexico. No initial releases or relocations will occur here, but wolves may run freely in this area.

“Zone Three is a limited habitat,” Barrett said. “We don’t expect the wolves to go there, but if they do, they can run freely. We just might be a little bit more aggressive in that area when it comes to the management of them.”

Some ranchers in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area say that the current area occupied by wolves already poses a financial problem.

Criag Thiesen purchased his ranch in 2011. The previous owners were selling it for a significantly low price.

“Wolves were killing the cows, and they just couldn’t take it,” Thiesen said.

Twenty-eight cows were killed by predators in 2013, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The government has been compensating ranchers for their losses since the Mexican gray wolf project was formulated, but the funds aren’t evenly distributed, Thiesen said.

“They always tell you they don’t have enough money. They spend between $1 million and $4 million per wolf,” Thiesen said. “I’ve lost $750,000, and they have given me $15,000 something. They’re definitely not spending it on us.”

In order to be compensated for loss of cattle, the government in Carton County, where Reserve is located, does a thorough investigation. Often the remains are too decomposed to identify a cause.

Oakleaf said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is willing to work with the ranchers. He said he understands the wolves have an impact, but he said he wants to help find a solution for both parties.

“There is an old saying: The closer you are to wolves the less you like them,” Oakleaf said.“There is good reason. If it costs you money, you are less likely to appreciate it. Every one is an independent business, so you work with the individual rancher and discuss positive solutions —or things that that rancher thinks will work on his particular lot.”

This article was published in the Tucson Sentinel and in the Cronkite News.


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Please write a letter to the editor
in support of Mexican gray wolf recovery.

The letters to the editor page is one of the most widely read, influential parts of the newspaper. One letter from you can reach thousands of people and will also likely be read by decision-makers.  Tips and talking points for writing your letter are below, but please write in your own words, from your own experience.

Submit your letter to the Editor of the Tucson Sentinel here.

Submit your letter to the Editor of the Cronkite News here.

Talking points specifically about the rule change:
  • New management rules for endangered Mexican wolves have some of the changes needed but other provisions that set a low cap on numbers, allow more killing of these wolves and keep them from habitat above I-40 will prevent recovery.
  • A good change in the new rule is that it expands the area where new wolves can be released into the wild where they belong. The Mexican gray wolf is the most endangered mammal in the U.S. with only about 83 in the wild.  Additional wolves must be released into the wild now to increase the genetic health of the species. Numerous wolves are in captive breeding facilities around the country, prepared for, and awaiting, release.
  • Expanding the area where the wolves can live is another positive change, but there should be no boundary at I-40. The boundary set in the new rule will keep Mexican wolves from establishing new populations in the areas north of I-40, which scientists say is necessary to their recovery.
  • There should be no cap on the number of Mexican wolves allowed to live in the wild.Top carnivores like Mexican gray wolves play an important role in ecosystem restoration and will balance themselves with their prey as they did for millennia before humans intervened.
  • The US Fish and Wildlife Service should focus on increasing the wild population’s genetic health and moving the wolves towards recovery, rather than promising that lobos can be killed if they increase beyond an arbitrary number.
  • USFWS should not allow more killing of critically endangered wolves. The proposal will push Mexican gray wolves towards extinction by allowing many more of them to be killed under all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with science or recovery, including for eating their natural prey to survive. With so few in the wild, every wolf is important. These native lobos need more protections, not less.
  • Wolves need freedom from boundaries. Given room to roam, the wolves will establish themselves in suitable areas with adequate game. The USFWS proposal does not allow wolves to establish new packs and populations in additional areas that are essential to their recovery.
  • The USFWS should designate Mexican gray wolves as essential. By labeling all of the wild wolves as “nonessential”  in the new rule, the USFWS ignores science and the reality of 16 years of experience with reintroducing wolves.The 83 wolves in the wild have up to four generations of experience in establishing packs and raising pups and are over 22% of all of the Mexican wolves in the world.The fourth generation wild lobos are not expendable and are essential to recovering this unique subspecies of wolf.
  • The USFWS needs to quit stalling and complete a comprehensive recovery plan.USFWS admits that their 1982 recovery plan is not scientifically sound and does not meet current legal requirements, yet it has not moved forward with recovery planning and the new rules ignores recommendations from scientists on the recovery planning team.
General Talking Points about the value of recovering Mexican wolves:
  • Wolves are a benefit to the West and are essential to restoring the balance of nature.
  • Polling has shown consistently that the vast majority of Arizona and New Mexico voters support the Mexican wolf reintroduction.
  • Wildlife biologists believe that Mexican wolves will improve the overall health of the Southwest and its rivers and streams – just as the return of gray wolves to Yellowstone has helped restore balance to its lands and waters.
  • Mexican gray wolves are unique native animals. They are the rarest, most genetically distinct subspecies of gray wolf in North America and one of the most endangered wolves in the world.
  • Wolves generate economic benefits - a University of Montana study found that visitors who come to see wolves in Yellowstone contribute roughly $35.5 million annually to the regional economy

Make sure you:
  • Thank the paper for publishing the article.
  • Do not repeat any negative messages from the article.  Remember that those reading your letter will not be looking at the article it responds to, so this is an opportunity to get out positive messages about wolf recovery rather than to argue with the original article.
  • Keep your letter brief, between 150-300 words.
  • Include something about who you are and why you care: E.g. “I am a mother, outdoors person, teacher, business owner, scientific, religious, etc.”
  • Provide your name, address, phone number and address.  The paper won’t publish these, but they want to know you are who you say you are.

Thank you for giving these wonderful wolves a voice!
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Photo credit: Laura Sposato


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